In mid-October, hundreds of thousands of Vietnam-era veterans got some good if grim news: The Veterans Administration announced it was adding three more diseases to the 11 others it automatically presumes to have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange, the dioxin-laced herbicide spread by the U.S. military across much of South Vietnam to deny crops and cover to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters during the war.
Newspapers and radio and TV news programs across America ran stories announcing that veterans of the jungle war who now suffer or may eventually suffer from Parkinson’s Disease, ischemic heart disease or a type of cancer called hairy-cell leukemia will henceforth automatically be offered free medical care by the VA if they’d spent at least one day in uniform on the ground in Vietnam.
The connection of these diseases to Agent Orange exposure had first been announced in July by a task force of the national Institute of Medicine. But the medical researchers made an obvious point that has been almost universally ignored in the media coverage of this story: As bad as the impact of Agent Orange was on American troops, it was worse for those millions on whom the chemical was directly dumped—the Vietnamese people.
The Institute of Medicine report notes at several points that the Vietnamese were exposed in far larger numbers and more extensively than were most American troops, and adds that when it comes to health impacts of Agent Orange, “The Vietnamese are an understudied population.”
Indeed. A total of 20 million gallons of dioxin-containing herbicide was sprayed by U.S. aircraft on at least 10 percent of what was once South Vietnam—over 3.6 million acres, much of it populated, even heavily populated. Cropland was deliberately targeted, and water bodies used for drinking and irrigation were contaminated. As the report clinically puts it, “Although there are likely to be serious logistical challenges, the many Vietnamese people who had substantial exposure constitute a potentially informative study sample.”
When New York Times military affairs reporter James Dao was asked why his October 13 article about the VA’s decision to add three new major illnesses to the list of Agent Orange-caused problems among veterans didn’t mention the obvious fact that these illnesses would also be afflicting many more Vietnamese, the reporter replied, “My beat is veterans,” adding that he “only” had 800 words to work with. (That’s 50 words longer than this piece.)
An earlier report in the Times back on July 25, on the initial report by the Institute of Medicine, written by Janie Lorber, also failed to mention the impact of Agent Orange findings for Vietnamese victims. She too blamed lack of space, saying, “I agree it’s important.” She added, “But this was an article focusing on federal benefits for American soldiers.” Actually, her article was mainly about the Institute of Medicine’s medical findings, and only secondarily on the possible VA benefits.
But the Times was hardly alone in ignoring the Vietnamese. A Nexis search found only two Agent Orange stories since July 1 that mentioned the Vietnamese. One, written by Jason Grotto of the Chicago Tribune (9/13/09), appeared to be unrelated to the new disease-link finding. It reported on the discovery of extremely high dioxin contamination in soil and water around the former U.S. military base of Da Nang in Vietnam—up to 50 times World Health Organization standards.
The other, a September 3 editorial in the Times-owned Boston Globe, noted Lt. William Calley’s recent apology for leading the slaughter of hundreds of civilians at My Lai, then continued, “But a more important step in the righting of wrongs left over from that war would be a greater U.S. role in rectifying the health and environmental problem caused by the defoliant Agent Orange.”
The Globe concluded: “Only grudgingly has the U.S. government acknowledged that the many herbicide-linked diseases in its own veterans stemmed from their years serving in Vietnam. The government has been even less forthcoming in helping Vietnam deal with the legacy of Agent Orange.”
But the government is not alone. As the coverage of the latest Institute of Medicine report on Agent Orange demonstrates, the American media continue to ignore the ongoing tragedy that 10 years of reckless (and probably criminal) use of herbicides by the U.S. military has bequeathed to the people of Vietnam.
Dave Lindorff (ThisCantBeHappening.net) is a Philadelphia-based investigative journalist. His latest book is The Case for Impeachment (St. Martin’s Press, 2006).